I was once looking to hire someone for my window cleaning business. One candidate, Carlos, had been referred to me by a friend. Carlos was intriguing to me. He was handsome, intelligent, articulate, and well dressed, and yet at 21 he wasn’t in college and was applying for a low-paying manual labor job. He rented a room in an ugly house in an ugly neighborhood and had a part-time job at Burger King. I was ready to hire him until I discovered that his only transportation was an old bike. Big problem. He lived on the other side of town from me and I needed him to drive to meeting points where I would pick him up every morning. When I called him the second time to tell him I just couldn’t hire him unless he could get some wheels, he asked in which parts of town I would want him to meet me. One was 10 miles from his house and the other was 15. No problem, Carlos said.
“Um, Carlos, I don’t think you realize how far it is from your house to that intersection and how cold and miserable that bike ride will be in the dead of winter at 6:30 am.”
“Yes I do. I pass that intersection and ride an additional mile almost every day for my Burger King shifts.”
“You work at that Burger King?!?” (I had assumed he worked at one that was located a mile or so away from him.)
“Ya, that’s no problem.”
Carlos was making this long ride sometimes for a mere 3-hour shift. Crazy. I hired him. How could I not hire a guy with that incredible attitude and hustle? Although he was now a U.S. citizen, Carlos grew up in a dangerous part of Mexico beleaguered by drug wars. At a young age he experienced an awful family tragedy, became involved in the drug trade, got caught, punched the Border Patrol officer who caught him, got caught by the officer’s partner, got punched a few times himself, and ended up in prison for a number of years. In the slammer he met a tall, wealthy German fellow doing time for a complicated immigration issue. The German happened to be a Mormon. Being intellectually curious, Carlos asked a lot of questions and ended up converting to the LDS Church. Upon his release, he fought a steep uphill battle to turn his life around. Way around.
He started working for me. He got all his clothes at Savers and Goodwill and wore button up dress shirts and pants to wash windows. Eventually he earned enough money cleaning glass to buy a motor to put on a different bicycle (he was an intuitive mechanic), giving him 40 glorious miles per hour. Then he crashed it doing nearly that speed and was back to the old bike. He had all types of challenges; some self-inflicted, others not. Although as I think about it, given his background, I’m not sure to what extent any challenge was truly self-inflicted. Regardless, you have never met a happier, more smiley, optimistic person in your life. He worked hard in my business. He was teachable, innovative, great with people, and very industrious. Carlos now runs a window cleaning business on his own and is engaged to a good woman.
The other day, as I became emotional watching the WWII vets being driven by in a 4th of July parade, I thought about the nature of America – what America at its core really means to me.
Does it mean a huge, beautiful, diverse physical landscape? Does it mean religious freedom, civil liberty, and innovation of every sort? Does it mean homegrown democracy? Does it mean baseball and hamburgers and water parks?
For people who pay attention to history it’s easy to think of a place or movement in terms of the ethnic and cultural makeup behind it. China wouldn’t be China without “Chinese” people and “Chinese” culture. Without those things, China is merely an area within various points of longitude and latitude on a map. It would be a completely different place if ruled by bagpipe-playing Scots, or Namibians clad in traditional African garb. In the same way, people might think that America is distinctly American because of our unique American proportion of this many Whites, this many Blacks, this many Latinos, this many Asians, etc, combined with a helping of our unique social institutions.
But as I try to define what America truly means to me, I realize that ethnicity and culture have absolutely nothing to do with it. Rather, America means Carlos. It means the chance, the total freedom, to improve your life and the lives of others. It means having the gumption to bike 20 miles a day for a 3-hour shift at a minimum wage job in order to rewrite your lot in the world. It means these beautiful, arthritic WWII soldiers slowly waving their hands; men who saved all humanity from an epic scourge of evil, accepting the fact that they could be shot down or blown up in the process. America means goodness and hope and virtue. And if in 100 years, the spot of land we call America is inhabited entirely by Mongolians who speak Klingon and play Quidditch—but they’ve adopted the birthright that pushed Carlos to dream and persevere and WWII vets to storm the beaches of Normandy—then that’s just fine with me. God bless them.
God bless America.